U.S. Out of the Lithium Mines


The New York Times reported this morning that Americans in Afghanistan have uncovered nearly a trillion dollars' worth of mineral deposits. Conor Friedersdorf reacts:

"This is my land! And it's rich with lithium!"

The United States cannot help Afghanistan exploit its newly discovered mineral resources without being corrupted by proximity to the vast riches they're likely to bring. It is especially imprudent to assign a leadership role to the Pentagon, an institution shrouded in official secrecy, largely captured by special interests inside America's military-industrial complex, and lacking any precedent to suggest it is capable of the task.

Nor is it particularly reassuring to imagine another branch of the American government working with corrupt Afghan officials to develop a mining industry in the country, especially since profitability is years away, which itself gives the United States a perverse incentive to extend our war in that nation.

Meanwhile, Blake Hounshell has some doubts about that trillion-dollar figure.

NEXT: Tea Party Metaphysics and Other Terrifying Spectres

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  1. Meanwhile, Blake Hounshell has some doubts about that trillion-dollar figure.

    Let’s remember; a trillion dollars doesn’t buy you as much as it used to.

    1. It’s a trillion in 2012 dollars, which is the equivelent of about five grand in today’s dollars.

  2. Time to expand the America Empire just a little bit farther.

  3. Look, I’m perfectly willing to believe that we just happened to recently discover vast mineral resources in Afghanistan. I’m also in favor of the development process for those resources to take place in a market-friendly way, which would result in multinational firms leading the way in almost all cases.

    But at the same time I understand that it will also be perfectly natural for more cynical souls than I to assume that this is not a recent discovery at all, but something that was known about before the war. “Oh right!” they’ll say. “We ‘just happened’ to find all these minerals after we invaded!” Get used to hearing it, because if the minerals actually turn out to be there we’ll be hearing it for the next 50 years.

    1. Given the 2011 deadline for the start of the troop drawdown, in addition to the current drumbeat of bad news, I’m going with a different conspiracy theory that might sound something like this: “Let me be clear. We do not want to be in Afghanistan. But for the first time in generations, the Afghan people have a chance to build a future. It would be irresponsible, even criminal, for us to let these resources fall into the hands of Taliban and al Qaeda.”

      I’m sure there is truth to the mineral discovery, but I think the timing is directed by the administration to keep us in Afghanistan for a long time.

    2. 50 years? You’re an optimist. I think 100 is more like it.

      I recall reading the same thing, BTW, 25 and 30 years ago, as explaining the Soviet invasion.

    3. Your conspiracy theory may be correct. Apparently, this discovery was first made public in 2007.….._resources

    4. Look, I’m perfectly willing to believe that we just happened to recently discover vast mineral resources in Afghanistan.

      no way they knew. If the Republicans knew then there would be no need for that pre-war talk the Bush administration had about invading Iraq first.

      Anyway kidding aside Afghanistan is in the mountains. Of course there are minerals. The more likely scenario is someone in the government simply finally figured out there are mountains in Afghanistan. That or they figured out mountains are made out minerals.

  4. [quote]profitability is years away, which itself gives the United States a perverse incentive to extend our war in that nation.[/quote]

    Perverse? Sounds like a great incentive to extend our war in that nation. Hell, it is finally something worth fighting for.

    1. “It’s okay. He poured the milk. It’s over.”

      I smiled. “It’s over for today, Otis. But we cannot be sure that the transmissions have ceased. There could be more.”

      Otis was silent. I opened the door to find him back behind the counter.

      “Finding everything okay?” he asked.

      “Sure, I just needed to take a shit,” I told him.

      The tall man was gone. I looked down at my thumb. It had stopped bleeding.

      1. It makes Vogon poetry sound delightful.

  5. Please do not feed the troll

  6. A trillion dollars sounds like a lot until you figure in how much it will cost to get it. Since the US has officially spent a quarter trillion in Afghanistan already and probably more then twice that if all costs are added in and still does not control the country. So I am betting that trillion dollars in minerals will cost far more then a trillion to get out of the ground.

    1. Afghan minerals, the new ethynol.

    2. Remember that the Iraq oil was supposed to pay for the costs of the Iraq military adventure. How close are we to payoff?

  7. I’m perfectly willing for the U.S. to avoid the “imperialist exploiter” label by leaving those “riches” in the ground. After all, they aren’t “riches” until somebody spends vast amounts of capital and labor to process them. Let the Taliban do it, when they’re not too busy beheading schoolgirls.

  8. Has the Ayn Rand Institute made a statement on this yet?… something about how the Afghans have no right to the Li, and the US should control it, and the Afghans have no moral claim to one gram of it?

  9. The corruption index score of the US is 7.5 (out of 10) and Afghanistan’s is 1.3. Considering the significant amounts of corruption found in the MMS when dealing domestically, I’m sure the level of corruption with the DoD and Afghani miners will be mind-blowing. Especially since they won’t be held to the same lofty FCPA standards that corporations are held to.

    1. It is much harder to surf for porn on Afghan government computers, though.

      1. But opium dens are a lot easier to find in Kabul.

  10. Gadzooks! Filthy Lucre!

    1. No Blood for Lithium!

  11. A $Trillion$ in minerals??!!


    “What is best in life, Conan?” you ask. Simple, crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women!

    Trillion$ in minerals? Bunch of pussies.

  12. The first thing to keep in mind is that Fluffy is right and that this is not entirely a new discovery (more precisely a) the Lithium is new, because no one was looking for it too much before the information age, b) the copper stuff is old, and has been examined by some mining companies, as it’s the current largest untapped reserve of the stuff – there’s lots of other larger reserves but they are being worked, and c) the iron stuff is also old and has mostly been dismissed as not worth it.

    The second thing to keep in mind that extraction of these resources to market is a twenty year project and everyone knows this.

    The third thing to keep in mind is that the most likely people to do the extraction are Chinese-owned mining companies, as a) this is something they’ve been moving comparatively agressively on all over the world b) they are already the largest foreign owned mining interest in Afghanistan, as they are the ones who already trying to develop the copper mines in the North along with the required tranportation infrastructure.

    1. Win-win. Let the Chinese do the actual hard work of getting it out of the ground. Then they’ll put in cheaply made rechargeable batteries. We’ll borrow the money from the Chinese to buy the batteries and put them in our laptops. When poor quality control causes explosions, we’ll sue the importer and get rich.

    2. Hounshell discusses some of this in his post, but I hadn’t heard about the Chinese copper-mining presence. Got any good resources on that?

      1. The Anyak Copper mine is one. (Although I was wrong about the location, it’s just south of Kabul. I think there’s another one up there by M-e-S or Konduz but not sure)

        It was bid out about 3 years ago…/c…..could.html

        There are of course some issues to be resolved


        And the implementation date has been delayed a few times (this link estimates NET 2013-14)
        http:(double slash)

        1. s/b ‘Aynak’

  13. First things first: there are a lot of environmental impact statements to be filed and reviewed. And we need a remediation plan. And what about all that dust?

  14. Deja Vu

    As soon as something of actual value is found there the attack that ‘the West shouldn’t help them, here are the reasons why’ begins.

    1. A lot of us have been saying that we shouldn’t be over there even when they didn’t have shit except for some poppies.

      For me, this changes next to nothing. Mining operations are hard to run when they are being shelled or bombed, and even a mediocre insurgent campaign can find enough competence to stage successful mortar attacks. A mediocre insurgent campaign sercretly backed by its country’s own president and the intelligence agency of a neighboring state can do a lot worse.

      Finally, as far as Lithium is concerned, Chile, Argentina, and Canada have large supplies. It’s not like we’re at “peak Lithium”, or anywhere close.

      1. Maybe the mining operations will be used as cover to build an Afghan version of Cheyenne Mountain to help us consolidate our presence in the region (and the hemisphere). If we’re lucky, construction workers will accidentally break through to the caves where Osama is hiding. 😉

  15. What an exquisite bind for the greens:

    OTOH, mining is icky.

    OTOH, we need mountains of lithium to make the batteries for electric cars.

    1. Also, the electrolysis needed to produce pure lithium requires massive amounts of power, most likely supplied by fossil fuels.

      1. I believe Afghanistan has some pretty decent Hydro potential, except that between the current drought and the condition of their existing stations due to war destreuction and just plain neglect are having trouble meeting even basic consumer needs.

        Maybe the Canadians could go build them a nuke plant. No problems there, right?

      2. Seriously, is it at all possible to think that solar power (either PV panels or CSP) could handle the demand for pure lithium? Who has the figures on this?

    2. It really isn’t that big of a problem for the greens. They don’t believe labor or capital is necessary for creation. In their world everything comes from the government. So they will just expect electric cars and their batteries to appears out of the governments ass and when they don’t they’ll blame the oil companies. Eazypeazy, no cognitive dissnonance to worry about no need to change their worldview to adjust to any so called “facts”

  16. “It is especially imprudent to assign a leadership role to the GOVERNMENT, an institution shrouded in official secrecy, largely captured by special interests inside America’s (military-industrial) BANKING complex, and lacking any precedent to suggest it is capable of the task.

    There, fixed it.

  17. I think it would be easier and ultimately cheaper to mine the Moon and some asteroids.

    1. Can’t Obama just bring one down to mine?

      1. Sure, with an Executive Order deeming it earthbound.

        1. If it doesn’t work it’s because of Bush!

  18. Wait’ll it turns out most of the lithium is under The Holiest Place In Islam. (Props to Suki.)

    1. +1 LOL Jake and Neteri will save them.

  19. There’s also hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of valuable trace elements finely distributed throughout the ocean, but it would cost more to extract them than they are worth.

    I wouldn’t doubt that any random spot on the earth the size of Afghanistan has a trillion dollars worth of rare elements near the surface, but unless they are super-concentrated, it doesn’t pay to dig them out.

  20. Shorter version: “Well, they’ve got no infrastructure, no decent legal system, a crappy government that only holds the capitol city, uneducated people, and not much in the way of anything else that would lead to prosperity, but the dirt they’re sitting on is not entirely worthless.

    Let’s hold a press conference.

  21. A Trillion Dollars in Lithium? You sure that’s not dilithium crystals?

    1. Those cost lots more, unless you have a replicator.

      1. Suki, Suki, Suki: Don’t you know that dilithium and latinum are two substances that cannot be replicated?

        1. That is just what the government told you.

  22. That could antagonize the 2 million farmers whose livelihoods depend on growing poppy,

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